2019
May
20
Monday

Looking around at commencement exercises this weekend, of which there were many, it was hard to miss the emphasis on community – on the village that helps bring graduates to that special day, and the village that those graduates should aspire to join.

At The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., an MBA graduate spoke of the acts of generosity that helped her overcome loneliness and thrive far from her home in India. At the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, Honduran immigrant Regis Lino-Kelly spoke of wanting to mirror the support he got as he moved from starting school unable to speak English to graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a great job. “It’s not just about us,” he said. “It’s about making sure our community is taken care of as well.”

And then there is Robert Smith. At Morehouse College, a historically black school for men, the billionaire private equity entrepreneur astonished graduates by announcing he would pay off their loans with a $40 million grant. And, he told the Class of 2019, he expected them to give back through hard work and character. “That degree is a social contract,” he said. “More than the money, the awards, the recognition ... we will all be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us.

“We have all the opportunities of the American dream. ... [We] will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”

I encourage you to listen to Mr. Smith’s powerful commencement address, which you can find here. And now, we’ll turn to our five stories, which look at challenges involving activism, equity, and democratic engagement.

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1. Car trouble: How America’s symbol of freedom became a ball and chain

For many, cars still symbolize an open-road mobility that’s part of the American dream. But the rising financial burden of car ownership may be changing that.

Amelia

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Few things are more strongly associated with a particularly American style of freedom than the privately owned automobile. Whether it’s Super Bowl ads or public policies that disproportionately favor motorists over cyclists and transit riders, the message has been consistent for decades: Get out and drive.

But the freedom of the open road comes with a growing cost: A report last week by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that auto loan delinquencies of more than 90 days have been trending upward since 2012, ensnaring a record 7 million Americans. Since the global financial crisis 10 years ago, the amount that Americans owe on their cars has grown by a whopping 75%. Even as some Americans are driving less or ditching cars altogether, for many commuters an auto is a costly but burdensome necessity.

That’s the case for single mother Jennifer Ramsey in West Virginia’s Tucker County. A car isn’t a status symbol but a life-support system, and Ms. Ramsey just has gotten hers back after a divorce. “Around here,” she says, “no car means no job. No food.”

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Car trouble: How America’s symbol of freedom became a ball and chain

For Jennifer Ramsey and her fellow residents of Tucker County in West Virginia, a car isn’t a status symbol, but a life-support system.

“Around here,” she says, “no car means no job. No food.”

Ms. Ramsey says that with no public transit in the county, if you don’t have a functioning car, “you have to get really creative and you have to be really humble.”

“It’s common to see people going to the grocery store on their riding mower or motorized scooters,” she says. “It’s a completely practical solution to getting around where you can’t own a vehicle due to finances or disability.”

Ms. Ramsey, a single mother, understands full well the perils of being stuck without a car in a place that depends on them. Her silver 2012 Mazda 5 has recently emerged from two years of legal limbo following her divorce. In the meantime, she lost her carpenters’ union job working on cooling towers, unable to make the 90-minute commute. “It’s actually put on most job applications around here,” she says. “‘Do you own a reliable vehicle?’”

As Ms. Ramsey’s experience indicates, America’s much-vaunted freedom to take to the open road in a privately owned automobile comes attached to a hefty financial obligation, one that many Americans are finding increasingly difficult to meet.

A recent report on consumer debt by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that auto loan delinquencies of more than 90 days have been trending upward since 2012, ensnaring a record 7 million Americans. The report also finds a surge in overall car debt, up 75% since the Great Recession. Collectively Americans owe a record $1.28 trillion on their cars.

The rapid growth of auto loan debt highlights a growing contradiction in the American economy: Car ownership remains a necessity in most places, but for many workers auto prices are rising faster than wages. Adding to the toll is the rise of “subprime” car loans, which come with high interest rates and often from the outset expose the borrowers to undue risk of default.

For many Americans, car ownership is both burdensome and compulsory. Some analysts argue that the solution is not to increase car ownership – there are an astonishing 272 million privately owned automobiles at last count, one for every 1.2 Americans. The solution, they say, is to reduce the number of “transit deserts,” where alternatives are lacking, while cracking down on predatory lending.

“How we became a nation that is so car-centric is really a result of decades of policy that has pushed us to this point,” says R.J. Cross, an analyst at the Frontier Group, a public policy think tank. “Our cities are designed such that everyone feels like they have to own a car.”

Reinforced by everything from zoning codes that push workers into suburbs to public spending that favors motorways over public transit, walkways, and bike paths, this mentality is pushing Americans deeper into debt, argues Ms. Cross. She is the primary author of Driving into Debt, a report published in February that argues for greater legal protection against predatory lending and for public transit improvements.

“It’s in these auto manufacturers’ interest to get as many people into cars as possible,” she says. “So the fact that they’re able to have these huge financing arms to help accomplish that and the fact historically they tend to capture the market that has lower credit scores, is deeply troubling.”

Cars more of a burden, but also a necessity?

Auto loans are almost as old as the mass-produced automobile itself. In 1919, just 11 years after the first Model T rolled off the line, Ford’s competitor founded the General Motors Acceptance Corporation, which offered customers a way to buy a car on credit. GMAC helped propel GM to the forefront of the fledgling U.S. auto industry, and by 1930, 3 of every 4 cars were purchased with a loan.

Today, the freedom of driving a car off the lot with little or no money down often accompanies a sense of feeling trapped. Almost half of Americans say that their auto debt has robbed them of their peace of mind, and nearly a third say that showing up at work naked would be less stressful than five years of car payments.

But for many Americans, that’s because making those payments is necessary to get to work, naked or not, in the first place.

“We have transit deserts in every major city,” says Junfeng Jiao, a professor of urban planning at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. “It’s something we have to face.”

According to Bureau of Transportation statistics, transportation accounts for the fourth highest household expenditure for Americans, after health care, housing, and food. And the average new-car price in the U.S. now tops $36,000, an increase of 8% in the past 10 years, adjusted for inflation. By comparison, household incomes rose just 3% in the decade that ended in 2017, the latest for which the Census Bureau offers data.

And hanging on to those cars has become a priority. In the past, debtors facing financial difficulty would traditionally pay their mortgage first, then their car payment, and finally their credit card bill. But in a 2012 survey, TransUnion found that more struggling borrowers had started to pay for the car first.

Many Americans, of course, continue to love the freedom of mobility that a car provides, and aren’t having trouble making payments. Yet the rise in debt and delinquency signals a widespread problem that, ironically, can be traced partly to legislation designed to avoid another subprime-lending or financial crisis. An exemption in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act prohibits the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from regulating car dealerships.

After the Great Recession, loans to subprime customers doubled by 2014, while loans to prime customers increased by half.

Some populations are more vulnerable than others to the challenges of risky loans and living in transit deserts.

“African American households were particularly hard hit by the [global financial crisis], and face continuing discrimination in the auto lending market,” Melissa Jacoby, a bankruptcy law expert at the University of North Carolina, says in an email interview.

And she sees a sizable risk that bad loans could damage the wider economy. That’s because the loans have features that are likely to lead to default, and because of the way a default wave can ripple through markets for loan-backed securities.

“Many American households have not recovered from the impact of that [2008] crisis, and yet market participants seem to be engaging in the same risky behavior that precipitated it,” Professor Jacoby says.

The road ahead

A cultural shift, however, might help ease the tensions over car ownership. Over the past decade, the number of miles driven each year by the average American, a trend that had been on the rise for 60 years, has been steadily falling. This trend is spearheaded by those between the ages of 16 and 34, a population known for being far less car-centric than its forebears.

“It’s possible that we’re just not as interested in inheriting the same kind of American dream that involves car ownership as previous generations are,” says Ms. Cross, who sold her car after moving from Kansas to Boston. 

As a result, per capita auto debt has been growing fastest among Americans age 70 and up, and slowest among adults under 30, although young people are still more likely to be delinquent, according to the New York Fed report.

Like Ms. Cross, Dylan Casler, a recent Vanderbilt University graduate who moved to Boston last year, found that the costs of car ownership in Boston outweighed the benefits. “Repairs would get expensive. Insurance was expensive. I found my windshield cracking pretty much annually,” he says of his blue 2004 Saab 9-3, which he is in the process of selling. “It’s nice to save all the money that I was pouring into it.”

Editor's note: A sentence in this article has been corrected to indicate that the U.S. has one car for every 1.2 people.

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A deeper look

2. Europe’s sanctuary movement: Why churches enter immigration debate

To some, it’s a religiously based moral stand. To others, it’s a bid by groups to put themselves above the law. The debate is playing out as congregations take dramatic steps to shield migrants. 

Amelia
COURTESY OF DIETLIND JOCHIMS
A young Somali who fled strife in his homeland sits in a church in Hamburg, Germany, where he lived while avoiding deportation by the state in 2017.

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From the Netherlands to Germany to Italy, churches have opened their doors to asylum-seekers, often in defiance of their governments, as countries have hardened their policies toward the influx of refugees and migrants.

One year ago there were 374 church asylum cases across Germany, sheltering 543 people. Today, the number has jumped to 532 church asylum cases offering protection to 855 people, including 190 children.

In The Hague, Netherlands, Bethel church drew worldwide attention when it kept a service going nonstop for 96 days to protect a family from being deported – taking advantage of a centuries-old law under which Dutch authorities can’t enter a church while a service is underway. The sanctuary crusade started with three local pastors, but drew nearly 1,000 ministers and 12,000 attendees from around the world. Ultimately, the government agreed to reconsider not only the family’s case, but hundreds of others. In late March, the family was granted a Dutch residency permit.

This growing demand for sanctuary – and churches’ efforts to meet it – is riling conservative politicians who argue that immigrants are breaking down the Christian foundational fabric of their countries. Even less hard-line immigration opponents argue church officials are putting themselves above the law of a democratic state and subordinating it to an unelected moral authority.

The Bethel congregation was pleased with the outcome but alarmed by the need for the marathon church service. “This was the first time in history that we had to organize a continuous church service,” says church leader Theo Hettema. “Before, the police and the government just respected the church.”

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Europe’s sanctuary movement: Why churches enter immigration debate

On the outskirts of one of Germany’s wealthiest cities, inside a tangle of Brutalist-era high-rises, several 20-something housemates sit around a coffee table filled with their favorite snacks, telling war stories. They have traveled from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Austria to Germany to Denmark to Sweden, and then back to Germany.

“Like tourists,” says Taara, a young mother with a ready laugh, as she kneads her newborn’s feet. 

Except they are not tourists. She and her husband Zemar have slept in the woods, gone hungry for days, been tear-gassed in refugee camps where security officials “used the stuff like water,” and, tightly holding hands, fought their way onto trains at stations that felt more like “Hunger Games” sets than transit points. They have fled the Taliban and the prospect of death, and left those they love in search of safety and asylum in Europe. 

Now, they are living in a safe house.

The migrants (whose names have been changed to protect their identities) have received sanctuary from a German church and, for the past year, they have been living together with another family on church grounds. It is a comfortable space with macramé wall hangings, modest pine furniture, donated baby toys, and colorful homemade construction paper chains from a recent birthday celebration. 

But there is potential danger beyond these walls, which is evident in the rules tacked up beside a schedule for German language lessons: Keep the address secret. No guests. No barbecuing. And if you step outside, it is at your own risk.

The group is being protected as part of a growing sanctuary movement taking root across parts of Europe aimed at preventing migrants from being deported back to war-wracked nations. From the Netherlands to Germany to Italy, churches have opened their doors to asylum-seekers, often in defiance of their governments, as countries have hardened their policies toward the influx of refugees and migrants. 

The movement has been the most pronounced in Germany, which stands at the nexus of the refugee crisis in Europe. One year ago there were 374 active church asylum cases across Germany, sheltering 543 people. Today, the number has jumped to 532 church asylum cases offering protection to some 855 people, including 190 children.

MAARTEN BOERSEMA, BETHEL CHURCH/AP
Members of the Tamrazyan family – Warduhi (second from l.), Seyran (c.), and Hayarpi (second from r.) – join in prayer in the Bethel church in The Hague, Netherlands, which sheltered them to prevent their deportation.

Requests for asylum have increased dramatically in Germany, thanks to a backlog of cases in the courts that began in 2015, when, in the midst of the Syrian war, Europe received the largest influx of refugees since World War II.

The efforts to shield asylum-seekers from government deportation mirrors the American church sanctuary movement that began in the 1980s as refugees fled brutal dictatorships in Latin America. Today, the movements draw strength from one another: An American church in Columbus, Ohio, for example, recently sent its pastor to the Netherlands to keep a church service going and protect a family from deportation. 

Yet while the challenge in the U.S. can be getting word out to refugee communities that churches can protect them, American pastors say, their German counterparts face a different problem: finding enough churches with the space to house all the denied asylum-seekers. The demand for sanctuary spaces in Germany outstrips supply by roughly 20 times, estimates Pastor Dietlind Jochims, commissioner for migration, asylum, and human rights for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany.

This growing demand – and church efforts to meet it – is riling conservative politicians who argue that immigrants are breaking down the Christian foundational fabric of their countries and, in flouting immigration laws, potentially bringing crime and terror with them. 

“Islam doesn’t belong in Germany,” the country’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said last year, even as statistics showed that violent crime nationwide had fallen 2.4%. Germany should create a “master plan,” he said, to step up the search for and deportation of criminals among asylum-seekers in order to “protect the country’s liberal values.”

Even less hard-line immigration opponents in the government are wary of churches offering hundreds of people sanctuary. They argue church officials are putting themselves above the law of a democratic state and, in the words of one German state governor, subordinating it to an unelected moral authority.

Church officials push back against this characterization. “It’s not about myself or any pastor or church being above the law of a democratic state,” says Ms. Jochims. “Rather, I think a democratic state is exactly one that lets itself be questioned. We aren’t doing any more or any less than coming to the government and asking them to please take a second look – because we think there might be a violation of human rights here.” 

Are the churches right – are they taking a vital humanitarian stand – or are they going too far?

The tension between church and state has spurred congregations to take dramatic steps to shield migrants. In The Hague, Netherlands, Bethel church recently drew worldwide attention when it kept a service going nonstop for 96 days. It was taking advantage of a centuries-old law under which Dutch authorities can’t enter a church while a service is underway.

The sanctuary crusade started with three local pastors, but gradually drew nearly 1,000 ministers and 12,000 attendees from around the world. They supported the round-the-clock service to help protect the Tamrazyan family from being deported to Armenia where, the church argued, the politically active father faced violence. Ultimately, given all the attention, the government agreed to reconsider not only the family’s case, but hundreds of others. In late March, the Tamrazyans were granted a Dutch residency permit.

PETER DEJONG/AP
Minister Henk ten Voorde leads a service at the Bethel church in The Hague, Netherlands, which for six weeks held a nonstop church service to prevent the deportation of an Armenian family. Dutch authorities won’t enter a church when a service is underway. The family was eventually allowed to stay in the country.

The congregation was pleased with the outcome but alarmed by the need for the marathon church service, which they feel highlighted an unsettling change in government policy. “This was the first time in history that we had to organize a continuous church service,” says Theo Hettema, chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers. “Before, the police and the government just respected the church.”

Mr. Hettema recalls taking part in an asylum case in the same church in 1998. Church officials were prepared to keep the service going. “We had some hymn books, volunteers, and a Bible on hand, so we could just hurry and start [a service] if necessary,” he recalls. “But it never was.”

The Tamrazyan family had been living 12 miles north of The Hague, in the small town of Katwijk, where they had been members of a Protestant church for the previous three years. “We knew them well, and what had happened to them in Armenia,” says Pastor Folkert Rinkema. “The family had been in the Netherlands for nine years, and we considered the children Dutch.”

When the family learned of their failed immigration petition and impending deportation, they asked for sanctuary. After some deliberation, the church council granted it. But soon after, “The authorities came to us and said, “We will come into the church and take them out – that’s an order,” Mr. Rinkema says. 

It is well known, he says, that the police tend to arrive around 4 a.m., when a family is sleeping and the police know the family members will be there. So the church devised a plan to start a service during those early hours.

Mr. Rinkema also reached out to colleagues at Bethel. “We are a little church – they could stay in only one room,” he says. “We have no shower, no kitchen.”

At night, after peeking out the door to look for police cars, the family went to the homes of fellow church members, where they showered and ate.

In considering whether to take in the Tamrazyan family, members of the Bethel church council weighed many questions and looked to the Bible for guidance. One Scripture that inspired them says that when you receive a refugee, you receive Christ. “This was very important for us,” Mr. Hettema says. 

But others pointed to a verse that says to obey the government. “We argued, ‘Well, by having church asylum, we do not protest against the government. Rather, church asylum is a means of reminding the government of its job. Its job is to make sure children aren’t hurt. We provide this church asylum to have a better government,’” he says.

They also explored whether there was another way to handle the situation. “Can’t we just have a talk behind the scenes with the government? We decided no. We see government policies becoming intentionally harsher, increasingly influenced by populist parties, to send the message, ‘It’s dangerous here, it’s hard here,’” Mr. Hettema says. 

DOMINIC EBENBICHLER/REUTERS/FILE
A family waits to be registered after crossing the border from Austria in Freilassing, Germany. As Germany has adopted tougher policies toward asylum-seekers, churches have housed some of those about to be deported.

“We looked into each other’s eyes and said, ‘OK, we can manage. Let’s call the family.’”

There have been 52 incidents of people being offered church asylum in the Netherlands in the past decade and, in this case, Bethel did not hide that it was providing sanctuary to the Tamrazyans. Church leaders even coordinated with local police to work through potential parking issues.

They also told the family that if federal authorities entered the church despite the ongoing service, the church would acquiesce. “We did not want to fight the government, but to plead for a discussion, a dialogue, a means of cooperation,” says Mr. Hettema. 

Church leaders mobilized nearly 100 volunteers to welcome participants to the service, clean toilets, buy groceries, and manage media outreach – in a hedge, he admits, against possible state action. Mr. Hettema estimates that in the beginning about 60% of the congregation supported the move, a figure he says rose to roughly 80% during the course of the ongoing service.

After a few weeks, Bethel officials had a meeting with the Dutch Ministry of Justice. “They said, ‘OK, we see that you have this church service. We will not enter the building; we won’t post a policeman outside.’ But they also said, ‘We think it’s rather ridiculous what you are doing, and it will have no impact. We’ll just wait until you can’t manage this anymore.’”

But word of the service spread. Thanks to frequent flyer miles donated by a parishioner, Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio sent its pastor, Joel Miller, to The Hague to take part in the Bethel church service. “There was a natural kindredness in the work in that it was asylum and sanctuary,” he says. Mr. Miller’s own church has offered sanctuary for the past year and a half to a Mexican woman facing deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In Hamburg, Germany, Ms. Jochims was scheduled to travel to The Hague to lead a service at Bethel, too, but the family was granted a reprieve – allowing the service to end last January – before she arrived. She decided to go anyway to discuss the movement with Mr. Hettema. 

“He was not one of these activists who does this all the time – the hold-up-your-fists-and-yell type,” Ms. Jochims says. “When we asked him if they had any idea of the outcome of this service when they started, if they had a Plan B, he said, ‘Humanity has no Plan B.’ He was saying stuff like that. He was very impressive.” 

What Ms. Jochims found particularly encouraging was the ultimate change in the government’s position. “It took more than three months but they kept on talking, talking, talking and that led to a solution. The encouraging thing was that there was a willingness to remain in dialogue.” 

In Germany, by contrast, “What frustrates us right now is that there has been a shift in atmosphere,” she adds. “They write us long bureaucratic emails, but there’s no real dialogue anymore, no willingness to find good solutions to the cases we bring to them. So that was a good thing to see – you keep on, you keep on, you keep on.” 

For their part, Taara and Zemar expect to be in sanctuary for roughly a year and a half. Until recently, German law required cases under the Dublin Regulation, the main framework governing asylum applications in Europe, to be settled within six months. If it took longer than that, people could not be deported. Churches, aware of the backlog of asylum cases in German courts, took advantage of this law to help run out the clocks, so to speak, for those seeking sanctuary. 

Aware of this tactic, German lawmakers voted last August to raise the length of time for Dublin cases to be resolved to 18 months. As a result, the time families spend living in churches has been steadily rising.

Peter Dejong/AP
Hayarpi Tamrazyan (r.), a 21-year-old Armenian asylum seeker, gets a hug from spokesperson Florine Kuethe inside the Bethel chapel in The Hague, Netherlands.

The state is moving toward toughening immigration laws in other ways as well. In April, as part of his so-called master plan, Interior Minister Seehofer gained Cabinet backing for an “orderly return bill.” It would hold asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in jails, reduce social welfare grants for asylum-seekers, and potentially prosecute civil servants who warn asylum-seekers of pending deportations. 

Already, authorities have questioned more than 150 church pastors in conservative German states, including Bavaria, and threatened some with jail time. “The police came to me and asked, ‘Who is living here? When did they arrive, and when are they leaving?” says Doris Otminghaus, a protestant pastor in Bavaria, whom colleagues describe as “ringing the church bells against the state.” 

“They told me, ‘This first time we come you will not be punished, but if you do it again, you will go to prison,’” she says, adding that she does not plan to stop.

Churches aren’t the only target of hardening policies. Until recently, health care facilities were considered unofficial safe zones, but when Taara went to a local hospital last year to deliver her baby, she learned this was no longer the case. 

“They asked me for documents and when I said, ‘I don’t have any,’ the nurse said, ‘Maybe we have to call the police.’ It was stressful.”

“Before, I could always tell people, ‘The hospital is safe,’” says Hannah Hosseini, head of the department of migration and asylum for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of East Hamburg. She pauses. “I used to be able to say with confidence, ‘You are safe now. The church will protect you.’ I can’t say that with confidence anymore.” 

Church officials, politicians, and refugees are looking toward European parliamentary elections in May to see if there will be any further shift in immigration policies. If anti-immigrant parties gain enough votes, they could block efforts to reform what critics consider the “huge structural failures” in the Dublin framework. Among other things, it requires immigrants to request asylum in the first European Union country in which they arrive. 

This places an unfair burden, critics say, on southern countries such as Greece and Italy now grappling with packed refugee camps and migrants living on the streets. Bulgaria and Hungary have been criticized for encouraging immigrants to move along north, under threat of imprisonment, rather than registering them for asylum. 

“Dublin can only work well if the reception conditions and asylum procedures are the same, plus or minus, wherever you are,” says Torsten Moritz, director of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe. “This isn’t the case.”

Should Taara, Zemar, or their housemates be detained by police, they could be sent back to Sweden, the first country where they registered with authorities. From there, they could be deported to Afghanistan, still embroiled in war. European countries have different deportation policies. While Germany won’t deport women and children to Afghanistan, for example, other European countries will.

“People coming into the EU are making an educated and, I think, well-informed decision in searching for a place with some infrastructure and some means of receiving them,” says Dr. Moritz. 

COURTESY OF DIETLIND JOCHIMS
"It’s not about myself or any pastor or church being above the law of a democratic state. Rather, I think a democratic state is exactly one that lets itself be questioned," says Pastor Dietlind Jochims, commissioner for migration, asylum, and human rights for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany.

The influx of asylum-seekers in Germany has prompted some church officials to change their own policies. Ms. Hosseini says that the church used to weigh the relative merits of each case to determine who got the scarce sanctuary spots. 

“I remember, there were five or six men coming via Bulgaria,” where treatment of asylum-seekers has been questioned by EU officials concerned about human rights violations. “One was saying, ‘I was jailed for four weeks,’ another said he was jailed for six weeks, another said he was beaten,” she says.

Now, the church takes a less emotionally exhausting first-come, first-served approach. “If we have a free place, the next person who comes gets it. We don’t want to – and can’t – decide who is more deserving.”

The 20-somethings sitting around the coffee table being protected here feel particularly fortunate. 

“I can imagine telling these stories to our grandchildren when we’re older,” Zemar says. “They won’t believe it. Sometimes we ourselves don’t believe it.” They watch television news clips of refugees on boats and in camps. “We think, ‘How dangerous. How stressful!’ Then we think, ‘Wait, we did this, too. And now we’re here. Thank God.’”

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3. From women’s rights activist to Supreme Court chief: meet Meaza Ashenafi

How do you keep people engaged in reform once at least some goals are achieved? Maintaining that urgency is a key challenge for Meaza Ashenafi, an activist who recently became the first woman to serve as Ethiopia’s Supreme Court chief justice. 

Amelia
Maheder Haileselassie/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Meaza Ashenafi, president of the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia. Ms. Ashenafi is the court's first female chief.

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When lawyer and women’s advocate Meaza Ashenafi was asked to become Ethiopia’s first-ever female Supreme Court chief, she had to think about it. “I told them, if they want business as usual, I’m not the right person for this job,” she says.

Ms. Ashenafi was one of many women nominated for top positions by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has ushered in a raft of reforms since coming to power last year, from freeing thousands of political prisoners to promising free elections. Their appointments have been celebrated as one more symbol of the country’s potential transformation. But can they move beyond symbolizing change, to making it?

It’s a question Ms. Ashenafi is well aware of – along with women’s activists across the country. Zeynab Abdille, a women’s rights activist in Jijiga, a city in the Somali region, was thrilled to hear of Ms. Ashenafi’s nomination. “I screamed at the TV,” she recalls. “This wasn’t just a woman he was appointing; it was an extremely outspoken woman. Who could expect that?” But all day, Ms. Abdille’s rose-colored iPhone buzzes with messages from women who still need her help, female Supreme Court president or not.

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From women’s rights activist to Supreme Court chief: meet Meaza Ashenafi

Two decades ago, when a young lawyer named Meaza Ashenafi began defending women who had been sexually harassed, she quickly stumbled into a problem.

Not only was sexual harassment not accepted as a crime in Ethiopia. Amharic, the country’s official language, didn’t even have a way to express it. 

“We had to improvise. We literally had to create the word,” says Ms. Ashenafi of herself and her colleagues at the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which she founded in the mid-1990s to provide defense to women who couldn’t afford it.

Wesibawi tinkosa,” she began declaring, testing the new term’s heft. Sexual harassment.

It stuck. And since then, that has been Ms. Ashenafi’s M.O. If the Ethiopia she wanted to live in didn’t exist, she created it – or tried to. As a young lawyer, she wrote human rights protections into the country’s new constitution. As a legal activist, she fought for a slate of laws to protect Ethiopian women from men in their lives. As a civil society leader, she started a bank dedicated to getting women into the formal financial system.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of activism that made Ms. Ashenafi many friends in Ethiopia’s authoritarian one-party government, which has ruled the country since the early 1990s.

So when the country’s new reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced last November that he was nominating Ms. Ashenafi to be the first female chief justice of Ethiopia’s Supreme Court, the reaction could best be described as a nationwide gasp.

“I screamed at the TV,” says Zeynab Abdille, a women’s rights activist in Jijiga, a city in Ethiopia’s Somali region. “This wasn’t just a woman he was appointing; it was an extremely outspoken woman. Who could expect that?”

Since Mr. Abiy came to power last April, indeed, he has scrambled many expectations. His government has freed up to 40,000 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International, and reopened the long-closed border with Eritrea. He unbanned opposition groups and promised them a free election in 2020.

Amid that raft of change, the appointments of Ms. Ashenafi and several other women to prominent government positions have been celebrated, seen as a kind of shorthand for the prime minister’s commitment to transform the society around him.

In many ways, the change is striking to behold. For the first time in Ethiopian history, half the national government ministries here are headed by women. There is a female president (a largely ceremonial post here) and a female head of the electoral commission, who also happens to be a prominent opposition figure who spent nearly a decade in exile. And then there is Ms. Ashenafi, a perpetual rabble-rouser who says she warned the prime minister’s office, “You might not be happy with the decisions that I make in this position.”

“I told them, if they want business as usual, I’m not the right person for this job,” she adds. 

But now, many wonder if all these appointments actually represent the start of a bigger transformation for Ethiopia’s women. Or is it a case, as many activists here worry, of a new government using female leadership to show the world how progressive and enlightened they are, while avoiding bigger problems that make their society so unequal to begin with? 

Jean Bizimana/Reuters
Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde speaks at the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, March 25. Ms. Sahle-Work is Ethiopia's first female president, and one of several women appointed to top positions since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power.

“These women can create space for other women. And even their presence itself ... it expands your imagination of what’s possible,” says Kamlaknesh Yasin, communications manager for Setaweet, a feminist organization based in Addis Ababa. But at the same time, she worries from the outside looking in, it will seem the battle is won. “People can say, ‘You got your representation. What more do you want?’”

*** 

For women like Ms. Yasin and Ms. Ashenafi, that question isn’t rhetorical.

They want a lot more. They want to live in a society where half of women aren’t victims of domestic violence. They want a country where there aren’t 100 boys for every 77 girls in secondary school. A place where men don’t vastly out-earn women.

“The problem in our society is that we still don’t see women’s rights as urgent human rights,” says Hilina Berhanu Degefa, a feminist activist and co-founder of a university campus movement for women’s rights called the Yellow Movement. “We see them as a luxury item that we can get around to when there is time.”

In part, the feeling that women’s rights aren’t an urgent fight anymore is because of Meaza – as Ms. Ashenafi is affectionately known to many Ethiopians.

As a legal adviser to the committee that wrote Ethiopia’s Constitution in the early 1990s, and later as a lawyer fighting for female victims of domestic and sexual violence, inheritance disputes, and custody battles, Ms. Ashenafi helped enshrine in law many protections for the country’s women.

But the knock-on effect of that is to make their challenges seem a thing of the past.

“So now the Ethiopian government has put the rights of women into the law, but it is up to us to make sure they happen on the level of our own lives,” says Ms. Abdille, in Jijiga, who heads an organization she founded called the Mother and Child Development Organization. “We are not finished. No one gave us the rights we have. What we have is what we have taken for ourselves.”

Ms. Abdille, indeed, has spent much of the past 50 years taking things that were never meant to be hers: An education. A career.

“When I was younger, people used to say to my husband, ‘This woman of yours talks too much about women’s rights. She wants to get rid of our culture. You must keep her at home,’” she says – though he didn’t listen.

So when she heard about Ms. Ashenafi’s appointment to the court, she was thrilled. 

“This is a woman who feels our problems, because she has lived them,” she says.

But Jijiga, a conservative city near the Somali border, is a long way from the Supreme Court in Addis, geographically and metaphorically. All day, Ms. Abdille’s rose-colored iPhone buzzes with messages from people who still need her help, female Supreme Court president or not – a mother fighting her daughter’s circumsizer in court, or a woman whose husband abandoned the family when their crops failed.

“Listen, Abiy has only been here one year,” she says, referring to the new prime minister. “The problems of women, they have been here thousands of years. You can’t fix that in a year.”

Even in Addis, activists say, the appointment of Ms. Ashenafi and other prominent women has so far been more symbolically valuable than practically useful to their work. Many have wished she would speak up about prominent cases of gender-based violence in the city – most prominently a young woman named Meaza Kassa, who died after a male colleague attacked her. But Ms. Ashenafi’s position prevents her from commenting openly on particular investigations, she says.

Meanwhile, she also has, quite simply, a lot to do in her day job. The court system she inherited has been hobbled by decades of underresourcing and political interference.

“Trust in our justice system is hugely eroded,” says Selome Tadesse, a close friend of Ms. Ashenafi’s, a former government spokesperson, and the first woman to head the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency. 

When the job gets difficult, Ms. Ashenafi says, she thinks of the reason she is here. It seems the culmination of a life of rebellion – another way of changing the system, this time from the inside. “Yes, a judge will always be expected to interpret the law impartially, but at the end of the day, we should have our eye on justice. If we don’t deliver that, we fail,” she says.

Before she took the job, she asked friends and her husband, a scientist at Addis Ababa University, what they thought. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, after all, that a longtime activist, a thorn in the side of authority, would want a government post. But the answers that came back were resounding.

“I told her, ‘You’re taking this job at a point of deep uncertainty for this country, and actually that’s the best time because you can shape what comes next,’” says Ms. Tadesse. “The door is cracked open now. We have to pull it open the rest of the way.”

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The Explainer

4. Uber’s founders have cashed in. How about the drivers?

The obligations of companies toward workers are murky in an era when an Uber driver isn’t an acknowledged company employee. We look at emerging models of how to provide job benefits in the gig economy.

Amelia

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Uber is the most visible symbol of the rise of digital-platform labor, where workers connect with their job opportunities over an app. Even after the firm’s stock market debut, the question of worker benefits remains unsettled. But some possible answers are emerging.

In Europe, Uber has teamed up with insurance firm AXA to offer a “Partner Protection” program that provides sick pay and other benefits for drivers. And in the U.S., Uber is among those voicing support for state laws under which platform companies would fund portable benefits for gig workers.

But labor advocates continue to press for workers to be classified as full employees (not as independent contractors) if their work revolves around an app.

What’s clear is that there’s a rising number of gig workers, not just delivery drivers, for society to consider. Sophie, who asked that her last name not be used in this story, inputs data from her home on the outskirts of Paris. “I need the money. There is nothing else to do that would allow me to work and still take care of my children,” she says.

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Uber’s founders have cashed in. How about the drivers?

The ride-hailing company Uber has made its long-awaited debut as a publicly traded stock, but investor demand for the May 10 initial public offering (IPO) fell short of the company’s hopes. Part of the reason is a lingering question about its workforce: Does the still-unprofitable firm deliver low-cost rides for passengers at the expense of decent treatment for drivers, and could the resulting discontent undermine Uber’s business model?

The issue over whether Uber drivers are employees (entitled to company benefits such as sick pay and retirement) or contractors (entitled to nothing) has been at the center of the labor controversy since the company launched a decade ago. It is still largely unresolved.

What’s the issue?

Uber positions itself as a technology company, supplying a digital platform that connects riders with independent drivers. They fight being called a “transportation company,” to the extent Uber calls its drivers “partners.” The business world calls them “gig workers.”

But whatever they are called, the drivers complain of 80-hour workweeks, low pay, and a lack of benefits. They must also cover their own vehicle expenses such as gas and car insurance. They operate in a twilight zone between full employment and freelance or contract work, where “freedom” and flexibility are a high price for income that can be less than minimum wage. They lack bargaining clout, leaving “enormous power in the hands of platform owners,” says Jovana Karanovic, an employment expert at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

How big is the gig economy and who’s in it?

A 2018 European Commission survey found that 2% of adults in the European Union earned more than half their income from platform-based work. The share may be a bit lower in the U.S., although precise measures are hard to come by. But the gig economy is expanding alongside other types of freelance or contracting activities that often lack traditional employer-provided benefits.

“My ‘boss’ is an algorithm,” Arndt, a food delivery driver in the Netherlands, said in an interview late last year after he spoke at a “Reshaping Work” conference in Amsterdam. “And that doesn’t help me when the restaurant hasn’t got the food ready for pickup and the waiting costs me money because every minute I’m standing around is a minute I could be making another delivery.”

And this growing sector is not limited to driving. Sophie, who like Arndt asked that her last name not be used in this story, inputs data from her home on the outskirts of Paris. “I need the money. There is nothing else to do that would allow me to work and still take care of my children,” she says. “The pay is low, but worst of all, the work is boring and there is no chance for advancement, no one to talk to about any kind of future.”

Firms like Uber are fostering the growth of gig work. What are they doing for these workers?  

Amid political pressure, Uber changed gears last year and created, with Paris-headquartered AXA insurance, a benefits program in Europe that could become a model for other digital-platform companies. It’s a move that’s been praised by some labor leaders, and seems to have assuaged some of Uber’s legal battles.

The Partner Protection program covers health expenses, death and disability benefits, and injuries on-trip, automatically, for its 150,000 drivers and couriers in 20 countries of the EU and parts of Africa and the Middle East. For frequent drivers, there’s also off-trip protection for things like parental and maternity leave, retirement, and severe illness. Some platform companies in the U.S. have tiptoed in a similar direction.

“Over the past 15 years, large digital players have changed the way people behave and consume, and this has resulted in large protection gaps,” says Charles De La Horie, AXA’s director of digital partnerships. He says the program with Uber reflects the imperative “to make the independent worker lifestyle sustainable.”

What role do governments play in providing benefits for this new labor sector?  

In Europe and in some U.S. states, policymakers are considering how to bring at least basic benefits to gig workers, and to ensure their long-term needs aren’t left unaddressed as a looming burden for the workers and for society. The EU has a social model of strong worker benefits, yet gig or “independent” laborers don’t fit that model; they’re adrift, like serfs in a new digital feudalism.

“The current social benefits system is attached to a single employer. However, in this new economy workers perform tasks for multiple platforms which are their employers; thus we need to detach the social benefits from a single employer,” Ms. Karanovic says. Portable benefits, such as those in Uber’s Partner Protection program which are hitched to the worker rather than the job, are a new step forward.

This idea is already gaining traction in Latvia and France, where independent workers pay contributions and get benefits based on their various professional activities. In the U.S., Uber is among those voicing support for state laws under which platform companies might fund portable benefits for gig workers.

So, will gig workers get what they’re hoping for?

That remains to be seen. Social protections for them are on the rise, and any progress is better than none. But labor advocates continue to battle companies in court, lobbying for legislation to classify these workers as full employees with a panoply of benefits and labor rights. The idea: If most of your pay and work opportunities revolve around an app, to call you a “contractor” is to misclassify you.

“I don’t like this idea of portable benefits, and I disagree that ‘work’ is changing,” says Boston-based attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has led some of the lawsuits in the U.S. “The way work is being assigned is changing. Companies in the gig economy want to rewrite the rules to suit themselves. They dupe the public and lawmakers by focusing on [gig workers’] flexibility, not the lack of social protection.”

Companies like Uber have lost or settled some court cases. But they’ve also used their lobbying clout to win what critics call “carve-outs” from state employment laws, inserting the definition of gig workers as contractors. And the firms face marketplace pressure to keep costs low as they compete with rival services. (Uber and Lyft say in IPO documents that they’d suffer financially if forced to classify drivers as employees and pay benefits.)

Political pressure has been growing to adapt labor laws to better support workers in the platform era. But one way or another, the cost of employee pay and benefits tends to get passed from companies along to their customers. Consumers have benefited from tap-of-the-phone convenience. Are they willing to pay a bit more if it means their driver is also benefiting?

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. Can Europe be saved? One couple’s mission to mend, not trash, the EU.

It’s a common lament: Many eligible voters take a hands-off approach to the issues. So Sabine and Daniel Röder are trying several ways to get fellow Europeans involved – and interested in solutions to the challenges facing Europe.

Amelia

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Until 2016, the Röders were typical parents, juggling work and their children’s lives in Frankfurt, Germany. To them, peace and freedom felt as natural as breathing. Fascism and war were part of a distant past.

But then politicians with nationalist, anti-Europe agendas made inroads everywhere from Britain to Italy to Poland. “People were genuinely worried that there could be a chance of war,” Daniel Röder says.

So the Röders emailed friends and colleagues: Would they rally in Frankfurt to show support for Europe? Two hundred people turned out, indicating “people wanted and needed more,” Sabine Röder recalls.

Thus began the pro-Europe grassroots initiative called Pulse of Europe, which now stretches across 21 European countries. It organizes public rallies and bills itself as a nonpartisan movement marshaling residents’ support for a strong, united Europe.

Ahead of the European Parliament elections May 23-26, a key Pulse of Europe aim has been to get out the vote.

At a recent rally in Frankfurt, resident Gabriele Schmötzer said she wasn’t somebody to take to the streets, “but I’ve been here from day one.” Her eyes moist, she adds, “If Europe breaks apart, we lose everything.”

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Can Europe be saved? One couple’s mission to mend, not trash, the EU.

On a recent spring evening seven residents of Dresden, once known as “Venice on the Elbe,” brainstorm the kind of European Union they want to live in. Should it have a carbon tax? A common fund for Europe’s unemployed? The debate is heated, but friendly, with pros and cons tossed about far into the night. 

Blocks away, anti-migrant demonstrators have completed their weekly march against what they call the Islamization of Europe. Nationalist voices like theirs are expecting big gains in the European Parliament elections May 23-26. And that’s why the seven residents, brainstorming and debating at one of their homes, are sending a countermessage – about mending, not trashing, the EU. 

“We won’t let nationalists destroy it,” says Heike Graf, one of the participants that night. 

The residents’ get-together is part of a pro-Europe grassroots initiative called Pulse of Europe. The initiative was begun in Germany in late 2016 by Daniel and Sabine Röder, and it now stretches across 21 European countries and about 100 cities. 

Pulse of Europe bills itself as a nonpartisan movement marshaling residents’ support for a strong, united Europe and the common values it stands for. It has held public rallies, with as many as 80,000 Europeans – from the Netherlands to Ireland to Portugal – turning out ahead of the French elections in the spring of 2017. More recently, it has also organized other events such as poetry slams and “house parliaments,” the latter of which describes the gathering in Dresden. Ahead of the May elections, a key Pulse of Europe aim has been to get out the vote.

The EU, which was born out of the ashes of war and fascism to safeguard peace and democracy, has seen its luster wane amid charges it’s more about regulating incandescent lightbulbs and the size of cucumbers than about ensuring the welfare of its citizens. Critics point to the Continent’s migrant crisis in particular, saying the EU hasn’t managed to solve it.

But “Daniel and Sabine Röder give us hope that Europe is not a lost cause, that ordinary folks can do something to save it,” Christian Nürnberger, an independent political author in Mainz, Germany, said in March. That’s when the Röders received the Erich Fromm Prize for promoting a “true, democratic Europe that secures peace and guarantees individual freedom, justice and legal security.” In fact, with the Pulse of Europe rallies, the anti-migrant marchers suddenly “didn’t have the streets for themselves,” Mr. Nürnberger added.

The past not so distant anymore

Until the Brexit referendum in 2016, the Röders had been typical parents, busy juggling work and their children’s lives. Neither had ever taken part in protest movements. To them, peace and freedom felt as natural as breathing. Fascism and war were part of a distant past. 

But in Frankfurt, where both worked as lawyers, old stories flooded back as politicians with nationalist, anti-Europe agendas made inroads everywhere from Britain to Italy to Poland.

It made Mr. Röder think about his grandfather’s gruesome war accounts. Also, he had grown up in a small West German village near the border with East Germany, where American patrols securing the border from potential Soviet aggression had impressed him.

As the nationalist and anti-Europe sentiments gained ground, “people were genuinely worried that there could be a chance of war,” Mr. Röder says. 

And with the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, who has called the EU a “foe,” “outcomes we’d deemed impossible became reality, and both times it was because people reacted too late,” Mr. Röder says.

So the Röders emailed their friends and colleagues: Would they rally in downtown Frankfurt that Sunday to show support for Europe? The 200 people who turned out showed that “people wanted and needed more,” Ms. Röder recalls. 

At some point later Ms. Graf, the Dresden resident who took part in the house parliament, learned about Pulse of Europe through a television appearance the Röders made. In that interview, Mr. Röder said that although many Europeans had become skeptical about the way the EU worked, the vast majority espoused the European project. After two years of letting anti-migrant marchers grab headlines, “we have to show that we are the majority,” Ms. Röder concurred. 

“That’s it!” Ms. Graf recalls telling herself. 

The Röders’ message reached her at a time when the rise of nationalist sentiments had paralyzed her. In her region, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was on its way to becoming the strongest force, and nationalism was bubbling up elsewhere. 

It hadn’t been long that the EU and its possibilities had opened themselves to her. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, she grasped what it meant to be able to work and travel freely, and she saw how EU funds helped refurbish old buildings neglected by decades of communism. The EU, in fact, is what helped save the lace factory that had employed her family for generations. 

The post-reunification years had been tough and the EU had its problems, but the EU meant no more dictatorships. Yet now, Ms. Graf wondered, were nationalist leaders with simple slogans destroying it all?

So she called the Röders to set up a Pulse of Europe rally in Dresden. In March 2017, some 1,300 residents swarmed the square around the Frauenkirche Dresden (Church of Our Lady).

In Hungary, useful conversations

Today, hundreds of miles away in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, Klara Landwehr hopes her own Pulse of Europe activities will motivate her fellow citizens to vote this month. At stake, she says, is saving a union that she sees as “my safety net against war, for democracy and the rule of law.” It’s a safety net that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been gradually shredding, she says.

She stumbled upon a Pulse of Europe rally in Munich and worked to bring the movement to Budapest. Lately she’s been using the house parliament model.

Hosting debate for small groups in her home has helped “people see how difficult it is for politicians to find the right answers for everybody, and that things aren’t black and white,” Ms. Landwehr says. She’s grateful to the Röders for giving Hungarians opportunities to engage in necessary and nuanced conversations.

Over in Frankfurt, where Pulse of Europe got its start, the Röders held a rally on a recent Sunday. “Go out and vote and bring your friends with you,” Mr. Röder tells the crowd. “Vote whatever you want, but vote Europe!” 

His hands gesture toward the informational booths of political parties he’s invited, from the center-right Christian Democratic Union to the Left Party to The Greens. Pulse of Europe helps “you get informed about what parties have to offer for Europe,” he says, and how parties can help improve the EU. But one party he has not invited is the AfD because “they say they want a different Europe, but they are about division, destruction, hatred, and people have to see that.” 

Near the stage, Frankfurt resident Gabriele Schmötzer gives Mr. Röder enthusiastic applause. Born in the last days of World War II, she wasn’t somebody to take to the streets, “but I’ve been here from day one,” she says, her eyes moist. 

The Röders are her idols. Why? 

“If Europe breaks apart, we lose everything.” 

• For more, visit pulseofeurope.eu/en.

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The Monitor's View

Seeing red in unfair green deals

Two ways to read the story

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Despite the hottest summer on record, voters in Australia just reinforced a chilly lesson for global campaigners on climate change. The lesson: Cuts in carbon use must be balanced by economic justice. In a May 18 election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right coalition won a surprise victory in large part because it pledged fewer restrictions on coal emissions than the Labor Party.

The unexpected election result comes after similar setbacks in other countries that suggest climate harmonization should go hand in hand with social and economic harmonization.

Few countries have yet to find an equitable allocation of the costs in curbing carbon pollution. In democracies, politicians can differ over details of the shared sacrifice. In Australia, which is the developed country that has been most vulnerable to climate change, compromise may still be possible between political parties. To gain a working majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Morrison will need to cut a deal with smaller parties that advocate strong climate action.

Extreme heat has put Australia’s feet to the fire. Eventually the Aussies may show the rest of the world how to distribute the obligations of creating a clean, green future.

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Seeing red in unfair green deals

Despite a severe drought and the hottest summer on record, voters in Australia just reinforced a chilly lesson for global campaigners on climate change. The lesson: Cuts in carbon use must be balanced by economic justice. 

In a May 18 election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right coalition won a surprise victory in large part because it pledged fewer restrictions on coal emissions than the Labor Party. Pollsters had missed the fact that voters in the coal-dependent “soot belt” did not want to bear an unfair burden in tackling global warming. Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal for power.

The unexpected election result comes after similar setbacks in other countries that suggest climate harmonization should go hand in hand with social and economic harmonization.

In Washington state last November, for example, voters again shot down a “carbon fee” because it was seen as unfair to working families and small businesses. At the same time in France, the so-called yellow vest protests erupted over a proposed fuel tax that would have placed a heavy toll on rural drivers. President Emmanuel Macron has since retreated on many green policies, learning a hard lesson that the political elite cannot get too far ahead of voters who perceive inequities in solutions to climate change.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces a legal and electoral rebellion in several provinces against a plan to impose a carbon tax. One big issue: whether government will stick to a promise to recycle all the revenue from a carbon tax back to energy consumers (“equalization payments”).

Few countries have yet to find an equitable allocation of the costs in curbing carbon pollution. In democracies, politicians can differ over details of the shared sacrifice. In Australia, which is the developed country that has been most vulnerable to climate change, compromise may still be possible between political parties. To gain a working majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Morrison will need to cut a deal with smaller parties that advocate strong climate action.

Extreme heat has put Australia’s feet to the fire. Eventually the Aussies may show the rest of the world how to distribute the obligations of creating a clean, green future.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

When it looked as if we’d lose the company

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Advised by his accountant that saving his business would be impossible, today’s contributor was struck with a conviction that God did not create anyone to toil, suffer, and fail, but instead to thrive and be joyful. Soon after came a business idea that turned the company around.

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When it looked as if we’d lose the company

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I was traveling with my family. We had to catch a flight. The clock was ticking. As I was at the hotel checkout desk, family members were still packing. Moreover, items wouldn’t fit in our luggage. It was all very stressful and confusing. Should I try to reschedule the flight? I didn’t know what to do.

At that point, I woke up. It had been a dream. I didn’t have to worry about any of it. The solution all along had been simple: Just wake up.

This reminded me of an experience I had some years ago when the answer to a genuine dilemma, a business problem for which I initially saw no solution, came from a more profound awakening – a spiritual awakening to the truth of our real being, which I’m coming to understand more fully through Christian Science.

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, lays out in her writings that each individual’s true being is spiritual and eternal. And she refers to the concept of creation as vulnerable and matter-based as the mortal dream from which we need to awake. “This awakening,” she explains in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “is the forever coming of Christ, the advanced appearing of Truth, which casts out error and heals the sick” (p. 230).

It is the nature of Christ, God’s healing message, to reach the human heart. The experience I’m about to relate illustrates how we are awakened by this divine message whenever and wherever it is welcomed.

I own a company that sells music and movies online. In 2010, after the Great Recession, we found ourselves deep in debt and severely behind in our payments to our suppliers. Our accountant kindly informed me that there was no chance to save the company.

Nevertheless, I felt reassured by Christ Jesus’ promise that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). This statement has always been a reminder to me that even in the most difficult situations, God is with us, illuminating the way. I prayed along these lines for a while and felt greatly inspired.

I remember the turning point in this experience so clearly. I had just been talking on the phone to the supplier to whom we owed the most money. Needless to say, it had not been a pleasant conversation, and they had suggested a solution that would result in even deeper debt for my company.

It should have been a low moment, but instead, a startling thought came to me so clearly: This is not real. Indeed, it felt as though I were waking up from a dream. I had a sudden spiritual conviction that God did not create me – or anyone – to toil, suffer, and fail. He created every one of us to express His boundless nature – to succeed, grow, thrive, be joyful. God expresses in every one of us His infinite qualities, among which are wisdom and intelligence. Science and Health says, “Man is the expression of God’s being” (p. 470). Knowing this awakens us from stress, fear, and doubt and allows us to see our true, spiritual selfhood as complete – the unlimited idea of God’s creating.

My circumstances had not changed, but my perception of the situation had – in an instant. And I rejoiced. I saw that I could never be separated from God’s infinite goodness or be the victim of lack of any kind, whether ideas, health, or resources. A passage in another of Mrs. Eddy’s writings – “God gives you His spiritual ideas, and in turn, they give you daily supplies” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 307) – helped me see that I would have the answers I needed.

Soon after, an idea came to me to try a completely different fulfillment model for our products. Success and phenomenal growth soon followed. The business completely turned around. All debts were paid in full, and we continue to do business with nearly all of the suppliers from that difficult period.

In situations that seem complicated, stressful, or overwhelming, the real solution comes not from frantic effort (however well-meaning), but from allowing God’s healing message to wake us up to the reality of good that’s ours to experience. Every one of us has the ability to hear this message, find the answers we need, and experience healing.

Adapted from an article published in the April 8, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

‘Make of yourself a light’

Andreas Fitri Atmoko/Antara Foto/Reuters
Visitors release paper lanterns during a ceremony on Vesak Day, also known as Waisak Day, the celebration of the birth of Buddha, at the Borobudur temple in Magelang, Central Java province, Indonesia, May 19. The sky lanterns symbolize light and enlightenment.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 21st, 2019 )

Thanks for starting your week with us. Come back tomorrow for Howard LaFranchi’s story about what the U.S. stance on abortion has meant for women’s rights around the world.

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May 20, 2019
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